On The Rise Of Cultural Populism: We’re All Musical Experts Now

by Thomas Brett

“Obscure knowledge was once a kind of currency.” – Alexandra Molotkow

I recently came across a resonant NYTimes article by Alexandra Molotkow titled “Why the Old-School Music Snob Is the Least Cool Kid on Twitter.” The article describes how file-sharing, first introduced in the late 1990s with Napster, made Molotkow and her friends’ esoteric insider music knowledge–the kind of knowledge once held by nerdy record store clerks back in the day and portrayed in Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity– irrelevant. “Thanks to the Internet”, Molotkow writes, “cultural knowledge was now a collective resource. Which meant that being cool was no longer about what you knew and what other people didn’t. It was about what you had to say about the things that everyone already knew about.”

I think Molotkow is right. Today we see the evidence of what looks to be a pretty seismic cultural shift set into motion by the digitization of our musical-social life via the Internet, music blogs, and music downloading. Digitization and downloading aren’t new, of course. But the shift is: the rise of a cultural populism in the place of that old guard, a grouchy cultural elitism, which, as Molotkow points out, had been guided by the strange notion that the fewer people who like a music the more valuable it seemed to be. (Remember the title of that 1958 article in High Fidelity magazine by composer Morton Feldman that sums up well the elitist ethos: “Who Cares If You Listen?”)

Perhaps it goes without saying that the notion of a music’s value being directly proportional to how many people don’t know about it is passé. It’s quite easy now to know something about all kinds of music. Thus, also passé is the notion of knowledge-hoarding: for who can hoard specialized, insider’s knowledge when facts are free to all on the Internet, just a click away? We share knowledge with one another because knowledge is so easily circulated these days. (And was what we know ever really “ours” to begin with?)

In relating her pre-Internet experiences tracking new and unknown and therefore cool musics, Molotkow relates how the old paradigm (all the way back in the 1990s when she was growing up) was that knowing a lot about a single subject area was the name of the game. Now, knowing a little about a lot of things seems to endow us with more cultural capital–which in turn enables us to stay a part of the cultural conversation, to know what’s New and Exciting and Hot and Now. As Molotkow observes, knowing everything there is to know about a narrow slice of experience (William Blake’s “To see the world in a grain of sand” approach) doesn’t necessarily help one keep up with the conversation of the moment. Indeed, if you get deep into something–become an expert of a particular music, say–you “just have to accept that most of your findings will have no social value.” Notice Molotkow didn’t say “little” social value but “no” social value.

Really? Zero value? That’s tough for me to accept, though perhaps Molotkow has a point in that it seems that to be socially relevant these days means to stay on the surface of one’s experience so as to more easily make (shallow and numerous?) comparisons between different social worlds. I admittedly did this last week when I explored in a surface-y kind of way some of what I heard in contemporary country music like the band Lady Antebellum. I came away from my experiment with some useful knowledge about country’s soundworld, but I could have gone much deeper. Clearly, country music is a whole way of life, a sonic representation of a habitus informed by acquired sensibilities and a set of tastes. I observed these tastes from afar, sure, but didn’t get inside them or try to understand them on their own terms.

In sum, Molotkow’s article may articulate a cultural trend, namely that being knowing about something threatens to replace actually knowing something. Being knowing is how we might describe someone who knows a bit about a lot of cultural things, but who isn’t necessarily committed to any of it. Knowing something on the other hand, involves not only a commitment of time and energy to dig and play around in the details but also, and inevitably, a turning away from a whole lot of things one doesn’t have time for. I know a little about country music, but knowing a lot more would undoubtedly open up answers to why country musicians make the music the way they do.

I’m not sure then that I agree with the idea that having expertise is synonymous with having little to contribute to the cultural conversation of the moment. But I do think that the cultural formations of digital/connected social life allows many more of us to comment on the “action” as never before. Which brings me back to Molotkow’s notion of how it matters what we have to say about a music that everyone and their grandmother has already heard/seen on TV or YouTube. It matters what we say precisely because there is so much opinion already circulating out there in the ether which all of are free to peruse, distill, refine, and interpret.

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In her survey of online music culture brokers like music blogs, Molotkow mentions in passing Richard Beck’s article “Pitchfork, 1995–Present” in the critical journal, n+1.  I’m glad I checked it out! This outstandingly informative essay traces the origins and rise of the music review website pitchfork.com from well, 1995 to the present. The history of this influential website is important because it parallels the rise of so-called “indie” popular music through the same time period and with which it has had a symbiotic relationship. Beck argues that Pitchfork perfected a kind of musical criticism as cultural capital accrual–its record reviews explaining to readers why a band or a recording is important to know about. He writes:  “A Pitchfork review may ignore history, aesthetics, or the basic technical aspects of tonal music, but it will almost never fail to include a detailed taxonomy of the current hype cycle and media environment [...] Pitchfork’s writers became the greatest, most pedantic fans of all, reconfiguring criticism as an exercise in perfect cultural consumption.”

Beck and Molotkow are coming from the same place–both of them acknowledging the complexities of consuming music in the 21st-century. There’s so much available but so little real context and too little time to listen; there’s so many influences but so little daringly new and original material (see my review of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania for more on this); there’s so much signifying and quotation but so little concern about radically changing meanings; and perhaps too there’s an abundance of knowingness and perhaps less genuine knowing. Finally, Beck articulates a situation that many music fans face yet rarely talk about: “Today, almost every person I know has more music on his computer than he could ever know what to do with. You don’t need to care about music to end up like this—the accumulation occurs naturally and unconsciously. My iTunes library, for example, contains forty-seven days of music [...]In the 21st century, we are all record store clerks.”

After reading Molotkow and Beck I wondered about the reasons anyone should read or write about musical experience. And the best reason I can come up with is that we should read and write about music (and sound more broadly) because they’re vital forms of social action, sites of cultural formation, and most significantly for me, entryways into the limitless dimensions of the human imagination. Yes, we get the gist of music within seconds of hearing it (and forming an opinion of it), but there’s so much to discuss regarding the interface of listener and sounds listened to! Writing about music then, should begin and end by describing the feel of an encounter between the writer/listener/musician (I am certainly all three) and the musical experience in which he/she is so feelingly immersed.

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